The Wire and literary form

Tuesday June 10, 2008 @ 04:22 PM (UTC)

This is more or less a review of HBO’s The Wire, all 5 seasons of which I devoured within this calendar year. However, it’s also a rambling musing about the nature of the novel.

I was glad to see Jervey Tervalon say in his piece in A Public Space Issue 5, “The Revenge of the Angry Black Artist”:

Oddly enough, what gives me hope is that shining light of literary ambition, the astonishing Wire. The HBO television series that aspires to be the War and Peace of the declining American city…

Mr. Tervalon is praising the “complex and integrated representation of African-American life” on the show, but the terms in which he’s done it are the same ones I have been using myself to express the scope of the show: it’s a novel. I started digging, and discovered that, just as we geeks know that JMS said Babylon 5 was a novel in television form, The Wire’s creator, David Simon, has called his show a “visual novel” or just “a novel” in interviews. has concurred.

So apparently I’m in good company. But this verdict on The Wire gives rise to the question, what the hell is a novel anyway?

Being a good little writing student (in a few weeks, a highly credentialed writing professional), I run right to John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. Okay, so my copy is packed in a box, so I search the internet for kernels of wisdom from The Art of Fiction. Luckily, Gardner is heavily quoted:

A novel is like a symphony in that its closing movement echoes and resounds with all that has gone before. [snip comparison with novella] Toward the close of a novel, the writer brings back – directly or in the form of his characters recollections – images, characters, events, and intellectual motifs encountered earlier. Unexpected connections begin to surface; hidden causes become plain; life becomes, however briefly and unstably, organized, the universe reveals itself if only for the moment, as inexorably moral; the outcome of various characters’ actions is at least manifest and we shall see the responsibility of free will. It is this closing orchestration that the novel exists for. If such a close does not come, for whatever theoretically good reason, we shut the book with feelings of dissatisfaction, as if cheated.

This is a pretty tall order (and, as Gardner admits, assumes a moral authorial universe). It is, in fact, an aspirational definition rather than a pragmatic one. The pragmatic one is some variation on “long written, fictional, prose narrative” (this phrasing from Wikipedia). Even we starry-eyed litgeeks use this definition, or else how can you explain my having applied the tag “novel” to things like Whisker of Evil?

Is the aspirational definition even useful, riven as it is by contradiction? (Even Gardner says both “It imitates the world in all its complexity; we not only look closely at various characters, we hear rumors of distant wars and marriages, we glimpse characters whom, like people on the subway, we will never see again. Too much neatness in a novel kills the novel’s fundamental effect.” and “The novel is elegant and efficient; that is, it does not use more scenes, characters, physical details, and technical devices than it needs to do its job.”) Is the existence and maintenance of this idealized ‘novel’ just a symptom of parochial literary thinking – a way of justifying the novel’s centrality in literary discourse and marketing, its place as the proof of an aspiring author’s skill and seriousness, its pervasiveness in the canon? After all, it doesn’t sound so impressive if we say that in order to be taken seriously, a writer must prove she or he can write a really long story.

Perhaps the place where the heroic concept of ‘novel’ really comes in handy is the place I stand now: trying to use a literary term outside the literary medium. The Wire, expanding as it does from a smart cops-and-dealers show in the first season to consider the problems of the working class, local politics, the school system and the press in the later seasons, has a social conscience that Dickens might have had, born into this century instead of his own. Certainly the moment when Bodie, young street dealer moving up in the business, first leaves Baltimore and learns that radio stations are localized, echoes for me as resonantly as “This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want.”

But perhaps Mr. Tervalon’s Tolstoy analogy is more apt; I admit, I haven’t read War and Peace, but the sprawling multi-protagonist nature of The Wire is far from the Pipcentric ways of Dickens. Watching the first few episodes of The Wire, my mind tried to select a protagonist. McNulty is the obvious first candidate, the first main character introduced, and indeed sometimes stands out in front in pictures like a lead singer. For the first half of the first episode, the camera switches between Detectives McNulty (later absent for almost an entire season) and Greggs, in the manner we viewers have come to understand designates protagonists. But soon enough we are following a young drug dealer, sitting in on police Majors’ meetings, and watching dope addicts fake ten-dollar bills. This is already a sprawling story, one hour in.

As for the cops, our natural tendency is to seek ‘clean’ protagonists. When we see a blame-shifting, overloaded departments with Majors who use the n-word, we look for the saving graces, for the Lt. Gordons who will make up for the ugliness of the fictional world. McNulty is too driven, too drunk, so we turn to Kima Greggs. I remember this distinctly from my first viewing, my initial investment in Greggs as the ‘good cop’. She’s responsible, dedicated, smart, kind to confidential informants. I remember at the end of the third episode, when Bodie punched a cop and Carver started beating him with a nightstick while another cop held him. Greggs came running, and I can still remember the way my disappointment mixed with the realization of my own naiveté as she started kicking the prone teenager.

Brutal, isn’t it? But that’s when I realized how great this show was. They knew my instinct would be to reject the cops as a whole and cling to one cop as a paragon. I feel pretty sure they set me up for that moment, the realization that this show was going to try to reflect life, the messed-up, imperfect people working within a deeply flawed system. I couldn’t idolize Kima Greggs. And I couldn’t reject drunken McNulty, or violent Carver, or career-minded Daniels. I had to understand them instead, accept them all as humans with good points and bad. Cops, criminals, addicts, dockworkers, politicians, teachers, reporters: human and complex. Like they are.

The world The Wire shows us is not pretty, but it forces a perspective we are usually able to ignore in our day-to-day lives, pushes us to see all the shades of grey. As Gardner’s ideal novel does in the quote above, it “imitates the world in all its complexity.” And it does it almost entirely in scene, without voiceover or flashback, without using those tools to consistently privilege one characters’ experience and motives over the others’. This is an omniscient perspective, without the moralizing or unitary reality for which that 19th century trope has been criticized and rejected. So maybe this is a novel. Maybe there are two novels: the form and the idea. But strangely, I think the more we understand what the idea is, the more we can interrogate its attachment to the form. I would by no means cheer the death of the book novel, any more than I would the death of the paper book; but if pushing at the edges of media and definitions creates work like The Wire, what reader could decry that pushing?


What’s this from: “This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want?”

White people really do love the wire.

New comment

required, won't be displayed (but may be used for Gravatar)


Don't type anything here unless you're an evil robot:

And especially don't type anything here:

Basic HTML (including links) is allowed, just don't try anything fishy. Your comment will be auto-formatted unless you use your own <p> tags for formatting. You're also welcome to use Textile.

Copyright © 2017 Felicity Shoulders. All rights reserved.
Powered by Thoth.